Tag Archives: Language

A Froggy Goes A-Courting

Bull Frog, courtesy dbarronoss on FlickrIn Washington, D.C., I am often awakened by the shrieking sounds of sirens, as police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances go racing past my house and down my street. But here, at Lake Hawthorne, it is the sounds of frogs — Bull Frogs to be exact — that interrupt my nightly reveries. Some say that it is chirping, but I perceive the Bull Frogs’ vocal chorus more like “plink-plunk,” as in the cello’s pizzicato notes that adorn some of Beethoven’s chamber music. Except for their mysterious, and thankfully temporary, disappearance several years ago — the Bull Frogs, together with many amphibians all across the States, constitute an eternal feature of The Lake. Thus, as is true for other aspects of my surroundings here, I have tended to take them for granted. No longer! Reading Skyrms’ The Stag Hunt, I have been inspired to ponder them, or in Jim Rosenau’s words, “to think about them thoroughly.”

Nature’s solution to this dilemma is the evolution of a signaling systems (or, as we have seen in the specific case of language, conventions) are established not by prior agreement. Rather, they evolve through interactions.

Recall that the Stag Hunt is all about cooperation, and how it might emerge and be maintained, notwithstanding that, at the individual level, non-cooperation will likely have a higher pay-off. Here we have a major social dilemma; for, although the individual may gain in such a case, society as a whole loses. Nature’s solution to this dilemma is the evolution of a signaling systems (or, as we have seen in the specific case of language, conventions) are established not by prior agreement. Rather, they evolve through interactions. As importantly — pointing to many human experiments and computer simulations — Skyrms notes that signaling systems are in equilibrium (in other words self-enforcing) in nature; hence, alternative strategies just don’t survive the evolutionary process. No wonder, then, that this kind of cooperation can be observed all around us, especially in the biological world. Thus, we find that cells merge together to create organisms; mouth bacteria join together in a community to form plaque; and myxococcis xantus aggregate themselves in mounds so as to survive food shortages. When, and how, these life forms alter their behaviors — often described as a phase transition — depends on timing and the specific situation in which they are located, as well as the types of messages that they exchange. 

At Lake Hawthorne, with Skryms’ discussion in mind, I am not only awakened by the Bull Frogs, I typically spend the next few hours, after their first “plink-plunk,” contemplating their sounds and signals. Imagining the contours in the lake’s circumference, and imaging the sequence of coves, I wonder which frogs are making what signals, where? I ask myself: What messages are they communicating? Do their different pitches signal a different message? According to my subsequent Google search, Bull Frogs communicate in order to stake out their territories, or to attract a mate and reproduce — certainly one form of cooperation. That the Bull Frogs signaling system is effective in this latter regard is verified to the extent that, according to my Google sources, female Bull Frogs — on connecting up with a Bull male — produce up to 25,000 eggs. This number assures their survival, even if, as my dog Sparky is wont to do, intruders constantly dive into the frogs’ habitat, seeking to satisfy their own curiosity about the sounds and signals.

There is another way in which The Stag Hunt is relevant to my experiences with frogs at Lake Hawthorne. As young adults, my cohorts and I initiated one more yearly tradition — the Frog Jumping Contest. It was held on the Fourth of July. To enter, and capture a contestant, we had to organize a “stag hunt.” In our little cooperative venture, one person rowed the boat, one held the flashlight, and two got in the muck (along with the leeches) to net the frog. The pay-off was having fun. In those days, we called it a “blast.” But one night, after searching all the coves, and getting all mucked up, we had little to show for our efforts — a smallish frog, no more that four inches in length. Perhaps we were over-zealous, but in our merriment, we decided to substitute our frog for a larger frog that our friends — who were also competing in the Jump — had sequestered that evening in their bathtub. Stealthily sneaking into their house, and switching our frog for theirs, was every bit as challenging, not to say entertaining, as the hunt itself. But in the morning, it didn’t seem so funny: our friends, viewing us as “defectors” who had broken the rules of the game, were no longer enthusiastic about the Jump. Understandably, there were few subsequent jumping contests after that night. And it was soon thereafter that the frogs just disappeared. My mother, who loved the frogs, said it was the fault of Frog Hunts. Post-Skyrms, I think that she might have been right — too many intruders disrupting their life cycle, or, better yet, their signaling system.

What’s in a Word?

Non Sequitur, by Wiley

Non Sequitur, by Wiley

Sunday morning, while sitting on the porch, sipping coffee, I picked up the comics in The Newark Star-Ledger, the only Sunday paper available in this North Jersey outpost. As the dealer told us when we asked for The New York Times, “We don’t carry The Times. The people here don’t have time to read such a paper: They are working class people, too busy just trying to survive.” No mind. The funnies are the funnies, and The Ledger carries many of my favorites including Non Sequitur by Wiley. Moreover, that day’s cartoon was not only very clever, it was especially pertinent to my readings and reflections at “The Lake.”

Entitled “The First Wordsmiths”, the comic strip featured three cavemen trekking through the woods. One, the ostensible leader, is pointing to objects and identifying them for the others, who then repeat the words — rock, rock; tree, tree; water, water. When the leader inadvertently steps in a pile of mud, so to speak, he blurts out “Aw, S***”, and the others respond with the word “Politics!”

Laughing at the comic strip, I was struck by how it captured aspects of the most recent book I have been reading, The Stuff of Thought: Language As A Window Into Human Nature, by Steven Pinker (2007). Written with the non-professional in mind, this book about words is both eloquent and interdisciplinary. Perhaps the theme that appealed to me most was Pinker’s discussion of how words come about, and how their meaning is determined not simply by someone pointing and identifying “objects,” as in the case of Wiley’s cavemen. Rather, as Pinker describes, the full meaning of a word emerges from and reflects the social interactions of the specific context in which the word evolves. No wonder, then, that with all the mud slinging going on today, many people share Wiley’s dark humor in associating politics with “S***”.

Words are also important at Lake Hawthorne, where, over time, they have taken on unique meanings of their own. Consider some of these words:

  • the island
  • the beach
  • the meadow
  • Pirate’s Cove
  • the old road.

These are not just the names of things; they are also–and as importantly–the names of places where special kinds of activities and interactions, fraught with emotional meanings, have taken place. Thus, the island is the place where children first experience setting up tents, enjoying their independence in an outside overnight. The beach is where families convene each afternoon, the children building sand castles and enjoying swimming and other water sports while their mothers and fathers socialize. For community events, such as meetings, picnics, and weddings, the meadow is the place to go. For more frivolous activities, explore Pirate’s Cove, where from your boat or canoe you can catch a frog, capture a turtle, or look for treasure. And, if there is time left, one option is to gather some neighbors together, and hike the old road, recounting all the while the lake lore and a shared repertoire of ghost stories.

In this vocabulary of lake-goers, one word stands out above all the rest. This word is “The Lake.” It is a symbol, commonly referred to by all, a metaphor — if not a substitute — for the experience itself. Like the other words, it is emergent — the product of an evolutionary process, the result of ongoing social interactions. But it subsumes the others, and at one and the same time is far greater than the sum of these parts. As Pinker might agree, the meaning of “The Lake” has evolved through interaction over generations — on the island, at the beach, down the old road.” At the same time, it gives guidance and greater meaning to those who are presently engaging in, and reproducing, these activities.